At the height of Iran’s countrywide protest movement last fall, the Islamic Republic’s all-powerful supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, called it a “hybrid war” fomented by foreign enemies — particularly the United States — through their local agents, taking advantage of the grievances of misguided Iranians.
Blaming domestic dissent on foreign conspiracies has been the official narrative of Iran’s ruling clerics ever since they took over after a popular revolution toppled the shah’s US-backed dictatorship in 1979. In what follows, I will focus on the role of this narrative to understand how the Islamic Republic has so far managed to contain Iran’s most recent wave of popular protests.
State of Siege
Iran’s 1979 revolution had a powerful anti-imperialist thrust, a reaction to a quarter century of US support for the unpopular shah, who had been restored to his throne in 1953 through a CIA coup. After the shah’s fall, the caretaker government appointed by the revolution’s charismatic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, initially maintained relations, however tense, with Washington, which went as far as intelligence-sharing with the CIA.
However, everything changed in November 1979, when Khomeini declared the launch of a “second revolution” and allowed the takeover of the US embassy, and its fifty-five staff members, to drag on for 444 fateful days. Initially a reaction to the admission of the ousted shah to the United States by the Carter administration, this prolonged confrontation with Washington enabled Khomeini to impose a clerical dictatorship, pushing out and then eliminating all rival political contenders, particularly those of the anti-imperialist left.
But this strategy of regime consolidation came at an enormous cost, placing the United States firmly in the camp of the Islamic Republic’s enemies. Washington’s effective state of war against Iran began with crushing economic sanctions during the hostage crisis and has continued all the way to the present. Taking advantage of the US-Iranian confrontation, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, starting an eight-year war that devastated both countries.
Throughout the war, Washington supported Baghdad directly, as well as through its Saudi and Kuwaiti proxies, at times engaging in armed intervention against Iran. However, like the hostage crisis, the war was not simply one that was imposed on Iran. Khomeini, through the American hostage-taking, contributed to its outbreak, and subsequently refused to end it after Iran recovered its lost territory within two years, insisting on regime change in Baghdad as the price of peace.
Even more than the hostage crisis, the almost decade-long war turned the Islamic Republic into a security-obsessed warfare state that saw foreign enemies behind all of its problems. The war also permanently militarized Iran’s postrevolutionary state, as could be seen in the ever-growing political clout of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a professional military force that was more powerful than the regular conscript army. Moreover, the war economy of the 1980s was built around a conglomerate of “foundations” and other para-state organizations that controlled the country’s vast oil income, capital markets, and labor force.
To harness revolutionary mobilization in the service of war, the Islamic Republic built a rudimentary welfare state, providing low-quality but universal education and health care. When the war eventually turned into a major political liability, Khomeini accepted a ceasefire in 1988, while at the same time ordering a purge of his imprisoned opponents. A committee of judges, including Iran’s current president, Ebrahim Raisi, ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners.
This bloody postwar purge marked the conclusion of the revolution’s first decade. Khomeini introduced constitutional changes bequeathing unlimited secular and religious authority to his successor as supreme leader, including the power to suspend basic Islamic tenets such as daily prayer. Thus, the post-Khomeini Islamic Republic continued as a constitutional clerical dictatorship and a permanently militarized state locked into an existential defensive posture vis-à-vis a host of foreign enemies led by the United States.
During the 1990s, Iran embarked on the task of postwar reconstruction, adjusting its statist war economy to the neoliberal world order. Meanwhile, US sanctions remained in place despite a “thaw” in relations with Tehran when Mohammad Khatami became president with a reformist mandate in 1997.
Within two years, and coinciding with the Iranian Revolution’s twentieth anniversary, simmering discontent boiled over into countrywide demonstrations, triggered by university students protesting the closure of reformist newspapers. The government’s hard core then clamped down hard, drawing a red line in blood beyond which reforms would not be tolerated.
Soon, the window of opportunity for mending relations with the United States was closed, this time by Washington. Invading Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush gave a speech naming Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as “Axis of Evil” targets in the United States’ “war on terror.” Ironically, this came at a time when the Islamic Republic was quietly cooperating with the US overthrow of the Taliban.
The new hard line against Iran was pushed by a pro-Israeli, neoconservative lobby that was trying to place Iran ahead of Iraq as a target of regime change via American military intervention. Relentlessly pushed by Tel Aviv, more US sanctions piled up on Iran, now accused primarily of weaponizing its nuclear energy program. The Bush administration ignored Israel’s nuclear arsenal, built in defiance of the international Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran was at least a signatory.
Although they severely damaged Iran’s economy and disrupted the daily lives of its people, US sanctions could not bring about regime change in Iran, something they had also failed to accomplish in Cuba or North Korea. The real objective of sanctions was to cripple Iran’s economy and make life unbearable to ordinary people, who might then, it was hoped, rise up and overthrow the Islamic Republic, perhaps with a little “friendly” intervention from Washington or Tel Aviv.
Ironically, this cynical logic validated the claims of Iran’s rulers, who had always associated foreign intervention, including punishing sanctions, with domestic dissent and opposition to the state. Ultimately, US sanctions strengthened the Islamic Republic’s repressive hand, providing its leaders with the perfect excuse to crush dissent by tying it to the real machinations of foreign powers.
Obama and the Green Movement
A potential breakthrough in US-Iran relations seemed possible when Barack Obama took office and began secret negotiations with Iran’s supreme leader. But everything was paused when, in 2009, Iran plunged into its largest mass protest since the outbreak of the revolution. This was the Green Movement, adopting the campaign color of the candidate who alleged that there had been fraud in that year’s presidential election.
Exactly thirty years after the 1979 revolution, millions of mostly urban, middle-class men and women were defying the government’s political impositions. As usual, the supreme leader claimed the Green Movement was a foreign conspiracy and unleashed the security forces to shoot, stab, and club protesters or run speeding cars and motorcycles into their midst.
It took a few months, hundreds of casualties, and thousands of imprisonments to eventually put down the 2009 Green Movement protests. Significantly, these protests were in support of a presidential candidate who was asking for reforms within the Islamic Republic. Their violent crushing sent the message that meaningful reform within the existing system was not possible.
In the aftermath of the Green protests, the Obama administration toughened its sanctions policy while resuming secret negotiations with Iran. During Obama’s second term, official negotiations between the United States, Iran, and five permanent members of the UN Security Council eventually led to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.
The deal offered Iran significant sanctions relief in exchange for international oversight and restrictions of its nuclear program. Vociferously opposed by Israel and right-wing factions of the Iranian diaspora, the deal was canceled by Donald Trump, who piled up additional sanctions in 2018. While totally reversing Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement, Trump stopped short of military confrontation with Iran, yet went as far as brazenly assassinating the Islamic Republic’s top officials, such as the commander of its foreign military operations.
The Trump administration’s extreme bellicosity and reimposition of crushing US sanctions exasperated a major economic downturn in Iran. The government adopted belt-tightening policies, including food and energy subsidy cutbacks, which in turn led to widespread angry demonstrations, this time mostly among the poor and working classes.
The Latest Round
Starting in 2017, the new protest cycle peaked in 2019, during the revolution’s fortieth anniversary, when the state deployed massive military force, including tanks and helicopters, to put down unrest by inflicting hundreds of casualties. Eerily, the cycle of mass protests and their bloody suppression had occurred with regularity at the end of every decade in the life of the Islamic Republic, in 1988, 1999, 2009, and 2019.
Then, while the country plunged into a life-and-death struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the government switched to a much harsher political strategy. In 2021, all relatively moderate factions, particularly those who had negotiated the nuclear deal with Obama, were purged in the virtually uncontested election to the presidency of Raisi, the cleric who had been involved in the mass murder of political prisoners.
The record-low turnout of this election showed the public’s response to a state that no longer pretended to care about its electoral participation. This was the background to the most severe protest cycle since the revolution, breaking out as Iran was emerging from the pandemic in fall 2022.
In some ways following the pattern of previous protests, the 2022–23 upheaval quickly reached such intensity that many observers saw Iran as being on the brink of another revolution. The trigger event was the September 2022 death in police custody of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa/Jina Amini, who had been arrested for improper veiling. Angry demonstrations immediately broke out all over the country as many women discarded or burned their headscarf in public.
The callous murder of Amini, a young Kurdish woman, epitomized overlapping layers of systematic repression that targeted women, youth, and ethnic minorities. Consequently, the protests were led by young people, with women playing a prominent role, and were most intense among Iran’s ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.
Moreover, the political upheaval was happening in the middle of ongoing vigils and strikes by workers, teachers, and pensioners, who were all struggling with unprecedented levels of unemployment and inflation. Thus, in addition to gender and ethnicity, the protests united people across class lines, as a decade of declining living standards had blurred the lines between the middle strata and the laboring poor.
In a marked difference from all previous cycles, the 2022–2023 protests were thoroughly secular and at times openly anticlerical, though not anti-religious. Nor did the response of government leaders emphasize the narrative of saving Islam, focusing instead on the need to save Iran from conspiracies hatched abroad. After about five decades, Iran’s era of Islamic politics seems to have reached its end.
By the early months of 2023, the frequency and intensity of street protests began to decline, with an estimated tally of about five hundred killed — including dozens of children — and about twenty thousand arrested. In the wake of the revolution’s forty-fourth anniversary in February 2023, the supreme leader felt secure enough to “pardon” thousands of those arrested.
Still, scattered street protests and their violent suppression have continued, most intensely in Kurdish and Baluch regions, while labor unrest and university strikes linger as well. Although they reinforced each other across the country, the protesters did not develop any unified leadership, organization, or political demands. Nor could the protests converge into a general strike, as had happened in the last months of the shah’s rule.
In addition to popular celebrities, academics, and cyberspace activists, the state’s purged political factions — mainly the reformists of yore — reacted with open sympathy and support of the protests. The leader of the Green Movement, Hossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2009, called for peaceful regime change through a national referendum, while former reformist president Khatami more cautiously mentioned the possibility of a constitutional referendum.
These proposals, along with a litany of specific grievances and complaints, have been openly discussed in the Iranian press. The boundaries of censorship have been pushed back considerably, even though journalists, many of them women, are routinely arrested and imprisoned.
The Iranian diaspora, too, has played a notable, if confused and conflicted, role in the recent upheaval. The diaspora has internationally amplified Iran’s cries of protest, although some of its factions have tried to speak for the protesters or give them political direction. The most successful diaspora event was an October 2022 rally in Berlin, with eighty thousand coming out to display a rare unity of left and right factions, each with their flags and slogans.
Soon, however, the diaspora, especially in the United States, fragmented in divisive conflicts, particularly as monarchists tried to impose their leadership. Led by the last shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, monarchists enjoy wide publicity in Iran, mainly through satellite television stations funded by the US government and Saudi Arabia. Cyberspace publicity, however, has not inspired a monarchist political movement inside Iran, where recent protests have displayed no monarchist sympathies.
Even in the diaspora, and despite their fiercely uncompromising stance against the Islamic Republic, monarchists have failed to exert hegemonic influence. The failure was largely self-inflicted, involving a series of blundering missteps.
First, the pretender to the crown, Reza Pahlavi, hastily formed an “all-inclusive” leadership coalition. He enlisted a female Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a couple of right-wing celebrity female activists, the leader of a pro-US Kurdish armed group, and a famous diaspora personality whose family was among the casualties of an airliner mistakenly shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. However, this bizarre coalition quickly fell part as its members began to leave, complaining about monarchist ideological impositions.
Second, the prince asked for a national mandate, via online voting, to personally represent the Iranian people outside the country. Embarrassingly, he received about four hundred thousand votes — perhaps the size of the monarchist diaspora — while Iran’s population of eighty-seven million barely took notice. Third, monarchist rallies proudly featured a notorious chief of SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, which was responsible for torturing and murdering political prisoners.
Finally, Prince Reza rushed to Tel Aviv, where he was anointed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who took a breather from his own government’s political fiasco to renew Israel’s threat of military strikes against Iran. All the while, monarchist and right-wing diaspora groups were pleading with the United States and other “democratic Western governments” to bring down the Islamic Republic by piling up more economic and diplomatic sanctions. This kind of politics plays right into the hand of Tehran’s clerical rulers, who accuse the entire diaspora opposition of involvement with American and Israeli regime-change conspiracies.
The Next Phase
While Iran’s latest popular upheaval has been contained, the Islamic Republic remains far from stability. At the peak of last winter’s protests, even state hardliners acknowledged their seriousness, some even admitting the need for “new governmentality.”
Crucially, women have successfully pushed back against a state that no longer can enforce compulsory veiling. This is a huge victory, both concretely and symbolically, as it shows women’s agency in daily life while defying the government’s insistence on compulsory veiling as a main pillar of the Islamic Republic. In other areas, political skirmishes are continuing inconclusively as powerful figures, such as the head of the judiciary, talk about openness to criticism, and the supreme leader himself comments on whether a constitutional referendum might be possible.
Meanwhile, beyond the containment of the protests, the government has also scored major points, though mostly in foreign relations. In March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia surprisingly announced the mending of badly strained diplomatic relations. The Islamic Republic thus neutralized its most powerful adversary next to the United States and Israel.
In addition, nuclear negotiations with the United States and the EU quietly made progress while the state was cracking down on protests and providing drones to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Last month, and obviously with US approval, Iraq and South Korea released several billion dollars of Tehran’s frozen assets, and Iran swapped political prisoners with Belgium and Austria.
Currently, the Islamic Republic is holding formal talks with the EU in Qatar and Oman, while high-ranking US diplomats participate on the sidelines. International and Iranian media report on an “understanding,” according to which Washington will ease sanctions in exchange for Iran’s halting of a weapons-grade nuclear project and conflict with US forces in Iraq and Syria.
That way, even without a formal agreement, the Biden administration could claim to have contained Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program and sponsorship of “terrorism,” while Supreme Leader Khamenei could also claim to have successfully pushed back on international sanctions while keeping intact Iran’s nonnuclear arsenal.
The Islamic Republic’s reformist opposition, and many on the Left, welcome sanctions relief for ordinary Iranians and de-escalation with the United States, which would reduce the danger of war and make it more difficult for the government to blame domestic dissent on foreign imposition. The right-wing diaspora opposition, however, is already disappointed, as its regime-change agenda hinges on foreign sanctions and military intervention.
Meanwhile, the low-intensity war of attrition against the Islamic Republic continues through daily acts of defiance by ordinary women and men, scattered rolling strikes by workers and university students, mass demonstrations among ethnic groups, and journalists pushing back the boundaries of censorship, all converging on the basic demand of opening up the political system. A major test, coming in less than a year, will be the elections to the Majles (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, a powerful clerical body that elects the next supreme leader.
It remains to be seen whether the government will decide to show flexibility or stay on its present course of allowing only extreme right-wing candidates. Given the accumulation of multilayered popular grievances, plus a downward economic spiral that will persist even with sanctions relief, another countrywide uprising is a distinct possibility. However, without centralized organization and leadership, even a spontaneous revolutionary rising has little chance of success.